Dave Thomas, owner of a successful Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Columbus, Ohio, and protégé of founder Colonel Harlan Sanders, was struggling in 1969 to find a name for a new burger concept he hoped to open.
The fast food burger market was becoming saturated, but Thomas believed there was an opening to target the richest young adults – the Baby Boomer generation – who weren’t happy with kid-friendly burger chains. These customers, according to him, wanted fresh beef and their choice of toppings and would be willing to pay higher prices for a better quality burger.
Thomas wanted to name the restaurant after one of his five children and turn it into a family business. But none of the names of his children matched the nostalgic and familiar character he wanted to create for the company.
From his leadership under Sanders at KFC, Thomas had learned the value of using a mascot to create an emotional connection with customers and a “restaurant-related personal identity,” he said in his 1991 autobiography “Dave’s Way”.
She found what she believed to be the perfect name and mascot in her fourth child’s nickname.
Melinda Lou, Thomas’s eight-year-old daughter, was nicknamed Wenda when she was born because her siblings couldn’t pronounce her name. Soon after, her family started calling her Wendy.
Thomas told his daughter one day at home to pull her hair in braids and take pictures with her camera. He wore a blue and white striped dress sewn by her mother for photos of her that would eventually transform her into a globally recognized fast food mascot.
“For me, nothing would be a more attractive ad than showing a smiling, rosy-cheeked little girl” enjoying one of her burgers, Thomas said. “Her clean, freckled face was that. I knew that was the name and image of the company.”
But Thomas later regretted his decision to name what would become a fast food empire after his daughter, believing he had put too much attention and pressure on her.
“He has lost some of his privacy,” he said in his autobiography. “Because some people still see her as the company’s official spokesperson, she sometimes hides herself by saying what she thinks. I don’t blame her.”
Thomas told her, “I should have called him after me, because he put a lot of pressure on you,” recalled Wendy Thomas-Morse, who later became a Wendy’s franchisee, in a blog post for the chain’s 50th anniversary. 2019.
‘Where’s the steak?’
The first Wendy’s restaurant opened in downtown Columbus, Ohio in 1969.
It had a refined tone, with carpeting, Tiffany lamps, hanging beads, and bentwood chairs. The workers all wore white aprons, with men in white trousers, a white shirt and a black bow tie, and women in white dresses and scarves. This gave “the feeling of cleanliness and tradition,” said Thomas. Wendy’s burgers cost twice as much as rival chains.
Disposable income baby boomers would become Wendy’s main customers, and later Wendy’s added salads, baked potatoes, stuffed pitas and other foods to satisfy them.
By the mid-1970s, 82% of Wendy’s customers were over the age of 25, “in stark contrast to all competitors,” wrote John Jakle and Keith Sculle in their 1999 book “Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age “.
In a decade, there were more than 1,000 Wendys in the United States.
With an ordinary man charm, Thomas usually appeared in a short-sleeved white shirt and red tie to advertise his burgers.
“Wendy’s burgers are boxy and old-fashioned. Dave Thomas was boxy and old-fashioned,” an advertising expert said when Thomas died.
Burgers, he says on the spot, “would have made Dad say, ‘Here’s the beef.'”